Texas Supreme Court Puts Harris County ‘Guaranteed Income’ on Hold

Tom Ozimek
By Tom Ozimek
June 15, 2024US News
Texas Supreme Court Puts Harris County ‘Guaranteed Income’ on Hold
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 23, 2024. (Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has prevailed in petitioning the Texas Supreme Court to put a halt to a “guaranteed income” scheme by Harris County that he said violated the state constitution.

The Texas Supreme Court issued an order on June 14, granting Mr. Paxton’s request for a stoppage of payments made under the “Uplift Harris” program, which involved “no strings attached” disbursements of $500 to nearly 2000 residents for 18 months.

“Although we make no definitive statement about the merits, the State has raised serious doubt about the constitutionality of the Uplift Harris program, and this potential violation of the Texas Constitution could not be remedied or undone if payments were to commence while the underlying appeal proceeds,” Texas Supreme Court justices wrote in the order.

Mr. Paxton first sued Harris County over the “guaranteed income” program in early April, arguing that the scheme redistributed public money in a way that violated the Texas Constitution, which forbids any county, city, or town from granting public money to any individual. He argued that the Harris County program amounted to an unconstitutional lottery-based handout because the selection of recipients was arbitrary and the public money was given away with no conditions, no control over the expenditure of that money, and no guarantee of any public benefit.

The scheme was announced by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo in 2023. Under the program, 1,928 eligible Harris County residents would be selected by lottery to receive $500 cash payments for 18 months with no conditions. The funds came from the $20.5 million the county received through the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, which Mr. Paxton argued was specifically intended to be used for COVID-19 relief initiatives.

After a lower court denied Texas’s request for emergency relief in the form of blocking the program, Mr. Paxton filed for emergency relief with the Texas Supreme Court, which granted a temporary, administrative stay in late April. Now, on June 14, the high court granted Mr. Paxton’s request to prohibit all payments under the Uplift Harris program pending further orders of the court.

“Harris County’s guaranteed income scheme is a clear and flagrant violation of the Texas Constitution,” Mr. Paxton said in a June 14 statement. “SCOTX has stepped in and put a stop to this abuse of power and unlawful use of taxpayer money while the case continues.”

The administrators of the Uplift Harris program issued a statement acknowledging the ruling but vowing to continue their legal fight.

“Due to a lawsuit filed against Harris County by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Uplift Harris, Harris County has been ordered by the Supreme Court of Texas to pause payments,” the administrators said in a statement on the Uplift Harris program website.

“Unfortunately, the first payment will not be delivered as originally planned,” the statement continued. “Harris County will continue to defend the Uplift Harris program in court and work to bring much-needed resources to Harris County residents.”

More Details

Officials in Harris County, which encompasses Houston, have said in the past that Uplift Harris was designed to help households in the county’s poorest ZIP codes who are 200 percent below the federal poverty line, which amounts to $15,060 for an individual, up to $31,200 for a family of four.

“The goal of the program is to improve participants’ financial and health outcomes, as well as understanding the impacts of guaranteed income on both individuals and their communities,” reads a statement on the Uplift Harris program website.

Some non-U.S. citizens such as green-card holders or people who came to the United States on asylum claims were eligible for the cash payments, though Harris County officials have clarified that illegal immigrants would not directly qualify.

“If you live in a household with members that have different immigration statuses, you can still apply if you are 18 years or older and meet all eligibility criteria, including being a U.S. citizen or non-citizen with one of the legal statuses listed above,” the program website states. “For instance, an adult—who is a U.S. citizen or non-citizen with legal residence status—can apply for their household, even if their family or others in the household are undocumented.”

There were no restrictions on how the money could be spent with the exception of a prohibition on supporting activities related to terrorism, or on anything that would harm the safety and security of community members, or for the promotion of or engagement in any criminal or illegal activities.

After Mr. Paxton secured a temporary, administrative stay against the program, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement that the Texas Supreme Court ruling was “disappointing” while claiming that the high court had become “politicized” in recent years.

“It’s unfortunate the court would take such an extraordinary step to block a program that would help people in Harris County—even temporarily,” the official added.

“The court knew that the first payments were scheduled to go out tomorrow. I will keep fighting to protect this program, and I look forward to continuing to argue that Uplift Harris is good legally and morally,” he said.

A similar “guaranteed income” program in Texas’ El Paso County that was supposed to roll out sometime this summer was halted several days ago.

Jack Phillips contributed to this report.

From The Epoch Times